"Grandfather, wrong bin," Rico exclaimed. Only after a while did I understand the message. He meant I was using the wrong disposal container when I was trying to get rid of some chocolate box packaging. I tried the other bin.
But Rico said: "This is wrong as well. You cannot put it away like that. This is bad for the environment."
After he said this, he took the packaging out of my hands, detached the carton from the plastic and put them in separate bins. The startling part is: Rico is five.
This happened during a recent trip to my country of birth, Germany. However, I have lived many years in Singapore and forgotten what I should know about recycling.
As educated adults, we should know what is right and what is wrong, although I catch myself quite often deviating from what I should do to protect Mother Earth. It certainly helps a lot if I get reprimanded by a five-year-old. This is much more effective than having posters and signs everywhere. They can be ignored easily. It is not easy to disregard Rico's comments - and his concerned smile.
Some time ago, after running in Pasir Ris Park on a beautiful Sunday morning, I plucked up the courage to write an e-mail to the National Parks Board (NParks) about what I had seen as I passed by the barbecue pits: huge amounts of Saturday night party leftovers that were just thrown on the floor instead of into the available bins. Some white foam boxes were floating in the sea.
This is a common sight and I thought there must be something we can do about it. To my surprise, NParks replied: "Don't worry. We clean the park every morning."
I was very disappointed and told my wife that we should send our five-year-old grandson to NParks to teach them one or two things about the need for people to clean up their own rubbish.
In Singapore, waste bins are emptied daily, making it easy for people to produce even more waste. In Germany, the different bins are cleared only twice a month, in accordance with a "recycling calendar". This enforces waste separation and "waste stinginess". When shopping for groceries in Germany, we do not receive any plastic bags. We have to pay if we need those.
However, when I carry my own bag to the supermarket in Singapore, some cashiers still look at me as if I am from Mars.
I love Singapore. Our country is world-class in many respects. However, I feel there is room for improvement. If we want to be a City in a Garden, we cannot rely on the Government to implement this alone - especially if we want to dress up more than just the front. The backyard should be in good order too.
This task needs everyone's support. Awareness needs to be built first. Why not start with the children? Kids in Singapore know about waste reduction and environmental protection in theory. However, that is where it seems to stop. Why is this so? On a small island, waste reduction should be a top priority.
Moreover, better separation of waste would lead to more effective recycling, which, in turn, would free up resources. Therefore, fewer trees would need to die on Sumatra, more orang utans would survive and we would experience less haze. Let's step up our care for our environment. We owe this to our children and their future.
•The writer is a Singapore-based management consultant.